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Okaloosa County Criminal Defense

Disclaimer: This article is in response to questions frequently asked of Mr. Cobb and is an unedited dictation transcript. Just like talk to text on your smartphone, there may be misspelled words or sentence fragments.

Florida has sixty-seven counties divided into twenty circuits. These are known as judicial circuits. Okaloosa County is in the first judicial circuit along with three other counties. Each of these four counties is completely different in terms of legal culture, and how they work. A bit of history is in order. I began practicing criminal defense law July 2 of 1990 with the office of the public defender, in my hometown of Pensacola Florida. I did this for over two years, and I was promoted rather rapidly. In fact, I was probably promoted too rapidly. I tried my first felony case with less than one year of experience against Judge David Rimmer, who was then a special prosecutor with the assistance of one of my mentors, Isaac Bruce Koran. We both got in trouble for it, but I learned some valuable lessons.

By the time I left the public defender’s office September 30 of 1997, I had handled over 10,000 cases, and had enough experience to become certified by the Florida Bar as a specialist. More importantly, for this particular book, I had been transferred from Escambia County to Okaloosa County in January of 1993. The difference between the two counties was profound. I am grateful to more mentors than I could possibly ever thanks to Jim Sewell, Judge Terry Terrell, Isaac Bruce Curran, and Drew Pinkerton, who was Okaloosa County’s first board certified specialist, and now deceased, Buddy Cotton, and many more.

Support staff kept me sane during this period, I am deeply grateful and indebted to Paddy McDonald, Andrew Siegweiler, and I could never thank my current legal assistant Janice Richardson enough. She is not my right-hand legal assistant; she is more like my right arm, left leg, and one-and-a-half eyes, and has been for almost a decade plus. They want you to represent yourself. Everything you know about criminal law is wrong. Everything. TV, Facebook, news articles, magazines, all kinds of things, have influenced you and none of it is accurate. So let us look at figure 1, which looks like an upside down capital letter Y.

When you first are arrested, by a warrant, or in the field and taken to jail, your first court date is not a trial. It is usually a video first appearance; you are lined up at the Okaloosa County jail along with a group of other people, and taken to a room that looks like the door has been sawed in half. One by one, you stand on one side of the door while on the other side of the door, there is a television screen, and you see a judge’s face. What you do not see is that on the other side of the judge’s face, there is an actual courtroom known as Video Court with a table and a bunch of people in the room with the judge, including your attorney, if you have one. Therefore, as you can see, this is not a trial. The judge makes three basic findings.

Is there a probable cause? If so, have the time limits been complied with? Finally, are you entitled to a bond, and if so, at what amount and under what conditions? This is where you start to see some real differences with Okaloosa County compared to Scandia, Santa Rosa, and Walton Counties. There are more bond conditions in Okaloosa than the other three combined. Additionally, you will have a piece of paper once you are released from jail, assuming you make bond that has a court date on it. Immediately, most people assume that this is trial; in fact, this is known as an arraignment. An arraignment is the process by which the judge calls people one at a time, the prosecutor reads out the charge, and the judge asks a single question “How did you plea?”

Your choices in Florida are guilty, not guilty, and no contest. If it is a misdemeanor case, the judge will sentence you on the spot, if you wish, which is always a very bad idea. However, for reasons some of these stated later, you will see where there is a lot of pressure for people to make this terrible mistake. If you are smart enough to plead not guilty, then you will be assigned to one of two courthouses depending upon where the arrest took place. The Crestview courthouse has been torn down, and all cases are handled at the Fort Walton Beach courthouse Annex in the south end of Okaloosa County, including those that would normally be handled in Crestview.

Theoretically, a new courthouse will be built and opened by 2018, but please note the word “theoretically” because nothing ever happens as fast as it should. What will actually happen at arraignment is you will never hear the word “Arraignment” uttered by a judge. This is another difference with Okaloosa County. It is referred to as plea day despite the fact that there is no such thing as plea day in all of rule three, which is the Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure for criminal cases. One thing to note, almost every case looks bad when it comes through the door. This is critical to understand. They are designed to look bad in order to crush a plea out of you as early as possible, so that the state attorney’s office engages in the least amount of work possible. They are underfunded; they are not nearly as underfunded as the office of the public defender.

When I was a public defender, I left because it felt like I had cases coming out of my ears. At this point, I hesitate to suggest to other places that current assistant public defenders may have heavy caseloads as well. One story, I think explains the whole point of why you never enter a plea of no contest, or guilty at your first court date at the arraignment. There was a shooting in the local area of town. A crack deal had gone bad. A truck pulled up, people surrounded it, and he asked if he could buy some cracked cocaine. One person in the crowd who sold drugs immediately recognized him from the day before, “Hey, that’s the guy who drove off and pulled pumpkin”. Pumpkin was a street name of a person who was a well-known crack dealer, and where this very same person had driven up the day before, he had accepted the rock of cracked cocaine yet did not pay for it and drove off.

Pumpkin, not exactly a rocket scientist, had jumped on the truck and tried to stop the person. This resulted in Pumpkin falling to the ground, rolling several times and walking away with a lot of cuts, bruises, and road rash. The crowd became enraged, surrounding the truck, banging on to it, and just as the person tried to drive away, someone stuck their arm in through the window and shot him in the chest. The driver gunned the accelerator, the vehicle sped off, and he died before he hit a pool at the end of the street. My client was charged with first-degree murder, and this is how the case started. He had made a complete and total confession.

When a case starts with a first-degree murder charge and your client has made a complete and total confession that is not a good sign. However, they all look bad when they come in to our office. Fortunately, knowing the local area well, and knowing other people who knew the area well, we were able to find witnesses who gave us key information. My client is not the person who had shot the driver. In fact, we found several witnesses, because we noticed during the discovery process an audio recording of the confession. At the end of the confession, my client said, “Is my mom going to pick me up”, the police responded, “No, you’re over 16. Your mom is not going to come pick you up; you are going to the adult jail in Crestview. You are going to be charged with first degree murder”.

This young person was not exactly a rocket scientist either. You can hear on the interview this long pause, and then he says, “All right. Let me tell you what really happened”, and then you hear the recorder turn off. Why was this done? They did not want to hear anything other than information that would implicate him, and cause him to be guilty. Therefore, they all look bad when they come in the door, and this case was ultimately dismissed. What makes Okaloosa County more dangerous than most counties in Florida is that when it comes through the legal system, there are three sections in Florida. There is a red Florida, and blue Florida, with the third area in the rural and sub-urban areas trending blue, within the legal system itself. You can break down these political dividing lines into two basic areas, rural, suburban, and urban counties.

For example, just within the first judicial circuit alone, where someone has a third degree felony with the five maximum sentences, and they get a probation sentence. The sentence might be something in Escambia County, such as withholding of the adjudication of guilt, various fines, court costs, conditions, and a probation period of one and a half years. That very same case in Okaloosa County is going to have far more probationary conditions, thus making it easier to violate probation. The standard probation is going to be three years in a case that I just described instead of one and a half years.

Additionally, it will be easier for that person to violate probation in Okaloosa County. Probation is going to say, “We’re just doing our job”. It is also harder to terminate probation early in Okaloosa County than it is in the other three counties. Why is that? It is because in Okaloosa County, the judges require two-thirds of the sentence to be completed. In other words, the earliest that someone will have his or her probation terminated in a case like the one I just described, will be at eighteen months. That same case, in Escambia County, would have a person eligible for early termination provided there was no violation of probation, and all financial and other conditions have been met within nine months. Thus, there is a massive cultural difference between the two counties.

When it comes to handling a case, a legal case can be handled three ways. In South Florida, or in urban counties, there is a lot of marketing about how aggressive a particular defense attorney is. Therefore, they start every case aggressively. If they try that in Okaloosa County, their clients are going to be blown out of court in a large percentage of the cases. As a result, some lawyers in rural suburban counties, such as Okaloosa will start the case passively. They go along and get along. These are the two ways that criminal defense attorneys start cases statewide. However, there is a third way, and I call that smart. Sometimes you are aggressive, sometimes you go passive, and it is always important to know the difference, because Florida criminal law is filled with hidden landmines you will never find. The system is designed that way.

They will look for reasons to arrest you in Okaloosa County. They have specific methods, and budgeting to target tourists, members of the United States military, veterans, millennial, locals, and of course, there is always institutional racism. For example, if you are a tourist, you run a very high risk of being targeted for DUI arrest. If you have an argument with your partner, you are most certainly are going to be arrested for domestic violence. The military is targeted despite the fact we have a veterans court diversion program. Millennials probably have the highest risk of all. Every year, a special budget is created, so the Okaloosa County sheriff’s office can hunt millennials down.

What they are looking for is a group of young people sitting around with a cooler drinking. They aggressively approach them as fast as they can; and they demand to check their identification. If anybody is sitting near the cooler filled with alcohol, even though they were not observed drinking, they are arrested, and charged as a minor in possession of alcohol. Millennials and tourists are targeted for bogus stops, so the car can be searched in order to find marijuana. God forbid you have a license plate on your vehicle from a state like Colorado, which has legalized marijuana, or Massachusetts that has decriminalized it, California tags are targeted the most. Finally, locals are targeted by tricks such as dropping the speed limit unrealistically low.

For example, if someone is returning from the day at the beach in Destin to Fort Walton Beach, they have to go over the Brooks Bridge. The Brooks Bridge unrealistically drops the speed limit to twenty-five miles an hour, which given the type of traffic, and driving conditions is completely unrealistic. However, because it is a violation of chapter 316 to go even one mile an hour over the speed limit, the Fort Walton Beach police department is usually waiting on the other side. They do not use body cameras, and they are able to target people selectively while claiming they are objectively enforcing the law. Finally, there is an ugly specter of racism.

Racism affects white people as well. I had a case not too long ago where a white woman had a black passenger in her vehicle, and she drove in the wrong neighborhood. The police literally followed her for nine miles in order to manufacture a traffic violation to pull her over, and then started manufacturing reasons to search her vehicle. She was a caregiver for an elderly senior citizen who had trouble remembering what prescription to take. The result, because she had some of her employers’ prescriptions in the vehicle, she was arrested and charged with felony drug possession. She even tried to explain that she kept the drugs with her, because the woman had a serious case of dementia, and could not be trusted to take all of her medication at one time, if they were left in her house.

The police turned a deaf ear, she was arrested, and had to hire counsel. When it comes to criminal law in Florida, specifically in Okaloosa County, there are some things you need to keep in mind. One of the reasons that law enforcement is as aggressive in counties as Okaloosa has to do with politics. The state attorney, for each of the twenty circuits around the state of Florida, is an elected official. They like to have high conviction rates, so they can claim that their conviction rate is high, so voters should never even consider another candidate. The reality is in the first judicial circuit; your highest number of voters where they have the most risk of losing a political race is in Pensacola. They offset this liability by more aggressive law enforcement in Okaloosa County, so they can get more or potential votes in order to not even have to run.

The county will be manipulated by the system from the moment you were targeted, and arrested. As mentioned earlier, the state attorney’s office is under-funded. However, this is nothing like the public defender’s office. I was a public defender from July 2 of 1990 through September 30 of 1997 and during that entire period, my caseload just continued to grow. While the state attorney’s office would occasionally get an additional staff member or an additional attorney, the public defender’s officer never seemed to get one. Salaries were frozen, yet cases were starting to explode. Another thing that affects the system’s manipulation and how it manipulates you is that the law is published online, and in print to mislead you. If you get a citation for a DUI, the front side of the citation is going to correctly state that the charge is Florida statute section 316.193.

When you turn this citation over, it will tell you how you can contest the automatic suspension of your driver’s license within ten days. The way it is worded makes it look like there is no possible way you can win. In fact, if you read the Florida statutes online, the citations that are received for traffic offenses, or arrest statements, and probable cause statements is if someone is arrested for a non-traffic charge, they are deliberately written in such a manner as to make you give up and lose hope. They are keeping something from you.

Disclaimer: This article is in response to questions frequently asked of Mr. Cobb and is an unedited dictation transcript. Just like talk to text on your smartphone, there may be misspelled words or sentence fragments.

For more information on Okaloosa County Criminal Defense, a free initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (850) 466-1522 today.